This bike was designed from the word go to win Ducati its first World Supersport Championship, spurred on by the previously unofficial World Series achieving championship status for 1999.
Ducati had already won the Supersport World Series in 1997 with Paolo Casoli aboard a 748SP, and intended to do it again in 2000, this time with Casoli aboard the RS version of the 748, especially built for the mission (refer to the panel story on page 30 to see how close Ducati got).
The upside of this single-minded determination to win is that to qualify for championship contention, a minimum of 1000 homologation units must be made.
So Ducati developed the 748RS racebike first, and then worried about building the road-going homologation bike, essentially a more user-friendly version of the full-house model. Enter the 748R.
The specification list reads like a who's who of performance parts manufacturers which, when combined with the R's minute dimensions and subsequent light weight, add up to a true performance bike for the road - even if 748cc is traditionally deemed small for a V-twin. It's difficult to convey just how small this bike is unless you've seen it and sat on it. It's tiny!
And it definitely felt that way when I climbed aboard for a day ride along the Great Ocean Road. Having recently done a similar trip on the somewhat larger Luxo-tourers (see Barge Wars page 44), I was pretty keen to cover the same roads on the 996R's little sibling. But little did I know that the sun I started out with was to be replaced with torrential rain by midday. And I mean torrential. Typical!
Also immediately apparent once astride is the somewhat aggressive seating position. The single seat unit actually points you downhill, helping to put your weight over the front Marchesini, also affording an excellent view of the machine's individual production number stamped on the adjustable triple clamp.
The traditional needle and clock instruments, with anything but traditional green characters, are easy to read, however the tacho curiously lacks a red-line. No matter, the power tails off above 11,000 rpm, just before the rev-limiter, so no need to rev any higher than that.
On the road, the upside-down Ohlins forks feel somewhat firm, as to be expected. The faster I went though, the better the front worked, due to the increased loads better suiting the forks design. The same applied to the rear 'piggy-back' Ohlins monoshock.
With both ends fully adjustable, the firm ride could be modified to some degree, though if you were expecting a plush, marshmallow ride, you are probably part of the wrong customer demographic.
The race-spec front brakes, comprising Brembo four-piston calipers squeezing 320mm semi-floating rotors via braided lines, were more than up to the task. Applying that adjustable front lever hard in a straight line resulted in enough stopping power to render the rear Brembo set-up superfluous. After all, what's the point of applying the rear brake if the back end is in the air.
The feel through the lever allowed me to brake confidently on suspect surfaces, also a function of the Pirelli Dragon Corsa front tyre, a quality I really appreciated when a storm turned the road I was travelling on into something resembling a muddy lake.
Also assisting in this unbridled confidence was the nature of the 748R's engine. Lacking the lumpy, pulsing low-down delivery characteristics of the larger V-twins, the 'little' 748R tractered confidently through the conditions.
The Marelli EFI also had a lot to do with this, allowing for the precise throttle control required in these sort of conditions. There was very little of the on/off/on throttle hesitation common to other fuel injection systems.
This also shone through before the big wet set in, giving me the option of either sticking to one gear and lazily rolling through, or playing boy racer and tapping away on the sweet-shifting gear lever with the tacho needle hovering near the limiter.
Letting the revs get too low, however, will see the engine misbehave a little. Remember though, this bike is racer first, road-bike second.
It isn't a major problem though, as the bike revs out so cleanly through the mid-range and beyond, that it's a pleasure to ride it this way. Any vibes are quite low-key - it really is a great road engine.
But as I mentioned earlier, this bike is meant for the racetrack, and what a way to sample Phillip Island for my first time ever.
And what a bike to learn the track on. Any mistakes with line choice, brakes or throttle were easily absorbed by the bike, as its limits were well beyond mine.
Honda Corner was interesting as it requires braking from fifth gear speed to first gear, and showed up a number of the bikes attributes. I just couldn't seem to brake late enough. Before I knew it I was down to below the speed necessary, and in fact had to release the brakes altogether a couple of times just to get to the turn-in point.
Despite braking later and later, the front Pirelli wasn't protesting too much, the bike was dead in line, and downshifts didn't create any compression lock-ups. The bike was mocking me.
Once at the turn-in point, only small inputs were required to lay the bike over, where upon both wheels would track exactly where I wanted. Even with the adjustable triple-clamps in the 'standard' position (24.5 degrees), the steering was fast, but not at the expense of stability.
The small non-adjustable steering dampener may have had something to do with that, though I suspect it was more the sweet set-up of the chassis.
The track is where the firm settings at both ends came into their own. Dive under heavy braking was well controlled, and the 748R felt balanced through all corners, fast or slow.
To tell the truth, I hardly noticed the suspension action at all, a sign there was nothing untoward going on.
Response from the engine was instantaneous, which combined with the rear Dragon Corsa to give me the confidence to drive hard out of every corner, before shifting up through that sweet action box.
Which brings me to the one thing this bike makes hard for the rider, race starts. The dry clutch made it difficult to get off the line cleanly, either hoisting the front wheel or bogging down. In the bike's defence, I only had three or four goes at it for fear of damaging the clutch, and I am sure practice will get it better.
Truthfully, it was very difficult to fault the 748R in terms of performance or finish. Small touches such as the quick-release fairing fasteners and hydraulically operated clutch just served to highlight Ducati's attention to detail.
And it's not as though the company has rested on its laurels with the 2001 748R. A lighter flywheel and crank, lighter pistons, revised gear selector drum and the same Ohlins forks as found on the 996R now grace the '01 748R. The frame too is similar to the 996R-s, although lighter in construction.
Just like the exotic $50,000 996R, the 748R is as close to a racebike for the street as you can currently buy. It's $6000 more expensive than the standard 748, but you get a lot more than just the additional claimed nine horsepower.
In retrospect, the storm I suffered on the Great Ocean Road was a blessing in disguise, showing another side to a bike that has a well-deserved reputation as an out-and-out sportsbike. It's a side that I was happy to see when piloting the $24,995 748R contender through atrocious, twisty roads, and proof to me that it's worth every cent.
Story: Sam Maclachlan
Photos: Captured by Cal